On the Firing Line
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
W alking into the FBI gym for a basketball game in 2003 or 2004 to play against John Ashcroft and his boys, you would have found it easy to dismiss the former attorney general's point guard, D. Kyle Sampson. He was, and, well, still is, short and balding and chubby, looking like a smaller Karl Rove. But then at tip-off you would have discovered that Sampson was not a throwaway player or fill-in but a guy with legitimate skills. In a blur he'd take over the game as the best one-guards do: firing no-look passes to open teammates (including Ashcroft, the team's forward), passing the ball behind his back, breaking through a crowd for a layup and taking terribly accurate jump shots that left you and any of the other people he played against--FBI agents, U.S. attorneys, other members of the Justice Department--deflated and quite frankly stunned.
"He's deceptively quick," said former Justice public affairs director Mark Corallo. "I say deceptively because he has this baby face. But he can do it all, though." Tomorrow Sampson, 37, appears voluntarily and under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee. As chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales until his resignation March 12, Sampson was the man in charge of the axing of eight federal prosecutors who were perceived as not being with the program the administration wished to prosecute. His testimony could be pivotal as lawmakers probe the depth of involvement in the sacking by Gonzales and the White House.
The best guards are extensions of their coaches -- putting into form what had been plays drawn up on the sideline. While acknowledging that "mistakes were made," Gonzales has maintained that he left matters to Sampson when it came to the firings. "I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on," he said. "That's basically what I knew as the attorney general."
Documents suggest otherwise, as does one of Sampson's closest friends.
"Everyone was in the loop," said longtime friend Sheldon Bradshaw, chief counsel of the Food and Drug Administration. Sampson "wasn't some rogue operative," Bradshaw said. "He does everything by the book." Sampson did not respond to requests for an interview.
Sampson's internal e-mails reveal an ambitious Washington player who relishes the tough move. In one, a week after the firings, he crows about the efficiency in replacing the U.S. attorney in New Mexico: "[Sen. Pete] Domenici is going to send over names tomorrow (not even waiting for Iglesias's body to cool)," a reference to ousted prosecutor David Iglesias. And in a memo headed "Plan for Replacing Certain U.S. Attorneys," Sampson expected elbows would be thrown. Step 3, underscored: "Prepare to Withstand Political Upheaval."
A devout Mormon born and bred in Utah and educated at Brigham Young University, where he met his wife, Noelle, Sampson coveted the U.S. attorney's job in Salt Lake City and twice approached the man who still had the job, Paul Warner -- now a federal magistrate -- to ask him when he'd be stepping down. The first occurred in a conference room in Utah, Warner said, and the second took place during a lunch in Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though they shared the same home state, Warner and Sampson followed different public service narratives. A former JAG attorney, Warner had spent 17 years in various capacities in the U.S. attorney's office, saying it "was where I wanted to be, not where I wanted to be from."
In speaking to the eager Sampson, Warner asked him to slow his motor.
"I let him know he would be helped with practical experience as a prosecutor," Warner said. "I told him he should spend some time as an assistant U.S. attorney. If you're going to be chief surgeon, it's nice to do some surgery."
Friends of Sampson defend him as a sharp lawyer more than capable of handling the rigors of any post. Bradshaw came to know Sampson in 1996 in Orangeburg, S.C., when both clerked in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit under Judge Karen Williams.
Something struck Bradshaw about Sampson the first day of their clerkship, he said. Though unimpressive in physical stature, the University of Chicago law school graduate who served as articles editor for the school's law review had that something: the overall presence of a man suited for bigger things.